The Cu Chi tunnels, the Bitexco tower

When I opened the curtains this morning, I found the sun was staring me in the face.

I was picked up at the hotel at 07:15 for my tour of the Cu Chi tunnels, around 50 km out of HCMC. We were driven to a pier nearby and boarded a speedboat on the Saigon river. It was a pleasant ride -the weather was nice, we were shielded from the sun, and the wind on our faces was a nice way to wake up! I was surprised to find that only another tourist boat and we were in the river at the time, I expected more traffic. Every once in a while we’d cross a barge with locals who were having breakfast or working and would wave at us as we passed by.

It took a good hour’s time to cover the distance between the pier at HCMC and our arrival in Cu Chi. The river has entire sections completely covered by floating plants, fairly big, green plants that look like bushes on solid ground but are really just floating on the water’s surface. Our boat seemed to part them with ease, and only when we got off could we see just how fast they moved with the water’s flow. Look at this forest!

Once in Cu Chi, we went through an underground passage where our entrance tickets were checked and came out on the other side to find a dry, brown, thinning bamboo forest with clear paths and sections outlined throughout. Apparently this was once a lush, green jungle, but agent orange ravaged the land and it’s taken decades for plants to start growing again.

Our guide took us first to see the tunnels themselves. To combat the Americans, the Vietcong excavated up to 250 km of densely interconnected tunnels that allowed them to roam the area unseen and chip away at the enemy with guerrilla attacks. The undergroung network had up to three different floors of tunnels and rooms, and they would carry out their entire life underground, including kitchens (with pipes that disseminated the smoke out of several places, so that no one plume of smoke could be detected), field hospitals, repair shops and dormitories. The tunnels had their direct access to wells, since they couldn’t use the water from the Saigon river, contaminated with agent orange.
(Notice the entrance to the hole at the bottom of the stairs)
There is a section of the tunnels that tourists can enter into, with the help of a guide. It’s only 80 cm wide and I had to crouch so much I was basically kneeling down, but bear in mind that this is a tunnel for tourists and the real ones were even narrower!
They also showed us different traps that the Vietnamese would lay all over the forest for the Americans to find, as they walked, or sometimes they dug special tunnels with the intention that Americans would find them and be trapped when they went inside. The traps sent a chill down my spine -bamboo spikes everywhere, or barbed metal hooks when they started recycling iron from the American bombs thrown their way. Designed to maim and to cause infections, the traps look decidedly wicked, although of course the park’s documentation praises them as heroic examples of resourcefulness and ingenuity.

Apart from the displays and the reconstructions of bunkers and different tunnel facilities, there are also a couple of gift store/convenience store kind of areas with showcases of guns used at the time. Incredibly, they have a gun range next to one of the stores, where you can fire an M16 or an AK-47, for real. It seemed wildly inappropriate for such a tragic place, but several tourists were happy to pay to do that. Even though all books mention it, gunshots really are a lot louder than movies and TV shows would have us believe! We would all jump whenever someone fired a gun in the distance, even when we knew it was coming.

The visit felt short, since there was so much history to go through, but it’s true that there’s only so much to see on the surface. At the end they made us sit through an awful propaganda docunews sort of video -logically it must have been made in the 70s, but it looked and sounded like the WW2 newsreels. It used the phrase “crazy demons” to describe the Americans, I’m not even kidding. I kept thinking they’d follow up with context on that, but no, that was just it and we left when it was over.
Inexplicably, on the way back to Saigon by car, our tour included a visit to a cricket farm. I’d been informed when I made the booking, I guess, except the lady had pronounced it as “Ricky Farm” several times and I just assumed it was the name of the place! So they dropped us off at a Godforsaken hamlet where they had trunks and trunks of crickets in a shed and it was super gross and it made my skin crawl and I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t want them on my phone and you don’t want to see them so yeah. At the end they offered us a tasting. “Just roll the fried crickets on rice paper with cucumber and lettuce”. I was like “I would but I don’t want to fill up before lunch thanks”. The other people in my group were happy to try!
They dropped me off at the hotel for a rest, and then I left for my last walk in Vietnam. As a farewell I went up to the Bitexco Financial Tower, HCMC’s tallest and most iconic building. It’s a bit confusing to get in because at the bottom of the tower there’s a small mall with shops and a cinema, and it lists the Skydeck, but you can’t actually go through it: you have to find a different entrance. A ticket costs 200,000 VND (€8) and it takes you to the 49th floor, which has a 360° view of the city.

Whenever I travel I usually like to visit towers and other vantage points, because it really helps you put your experiences of the city in perspective, like putting pins on your own mental Google Maps of the place. I had intentionally left this visit for 17:30, sundown, and sure enough I was able to see the day transition into night from my perch. HCMC looks vast but only on one side of the river, and there are many many small houses around the few skyscrapers. When it turned dark, only the latter turned lights on; at the risk of sounding like a tool, this view can’t hold a candle to that of the Park Hyatt Tokyo (sigh!) I enjoyed spotting City Hall, the spires of Notre Dame, the Post Office…

And that’s it for my Vietnam trip! Tomorrow I have to get up at the crack of dawn to catch my plane back to Paris. I have enjoyed this trip very much, even though the first half was marred by truly miserable weather. It’s been extremely educational, I have learned so much… That said, it has also been exhausting, and I’m very happy to go back home and sleep more than two nights in the same place!
See you soon someplace different!

3 thoughts on “The Cu Chi tunnels, the Bitexco tower”

  1. Hola Martín!!Que descanses merecidamente de tu largo viaje. Espero que hayas disfrutado tanto como nosotros. Ya me contarás todos los detalles en tu próxima visita a Donosti.


  2. Hola Martín!!Que descanses merecidamente de tu largo viaje. Espero que hayas disfrutado tanto como nosotros. Ya me contarás todos los detalles en tu próxima visita a Donosti.


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